Dal primo capitolo
Living One’s Karma
The conception of existence as samsâra, cosmic flux, together with its parallel conception of karma, ‘concordant action and reaction’ as the determinant of each being’s part in that flux, is an essential feature of all the traditions directly or indirectly deriving from India. Though the subject is here being considered from a Buddhist angle, most of what will be said could apply to Hinduism equally well.
Let us first consider the Round of Existence through its symbolical representation, said to go back to the Buddha himself, as a circle subdivided into six sectors, each containing one of the typical classes of sentient beings. These sectors can be arranged in three pairs, as follows:
our world: (1) human (the central state); (2) animals (peripheral states)
supernal worlds: (3) gods, or devas; (4) titans, or
infernal worlds: (5) tantalised ghosts, or pretas; (6) hells.
This symbolic scheme is familiar wherever the Buddhist tradition prevails.
Let us examine each of the six components in somewhat greater detail. Quite evidently, the human sector, which was mentioned first, has been given a disproportionate share in the whole if one considers it solely from the point of view of the number of beings concerned. Compared with the vast multiplicity of their nonhuman neighbours, men represent a very small number indeed, apart from the fact that they form but one species as compared with an immense variety extending to genera, families, and natural orders. The reason for this privileged treatment is twofold: first, being men ourselves, it is natural for us to single out for study our own kind and manner of existing; second, the human species is the chosen field of avataric embodiment, Buddhahood, and this, qualitatively speaking, entitles it to privileged consideration.
Passing to the animal sector, this contains a large number of different species situated at the same level of existence as man, but varying in respect of their nearness to, or remoteness from, the human position. It might then be asked: where do plants and minerals come in, since they do not seem to figure by name in any sector? The answer can only be that here one is not dealing with a chart of biological or geological statistics; one must not expect a meticulous consistency in regard to details. All the traditional picture of the Round is intended to do is to serve as a broadly sufficient guide to an understanding of the universe, one that is based, all along, on qualitative factors rather than on ‘facts’ or quantitative considerations such as enter into the purview of natural sciences in the usual sense of the word.
Regarded from the human point of view, the supernal states are those that in greater or lesser measure escape the physical and psychic limitations of our own state of existence. The two sectors grouped in the supernal class may, however, themselves include quite a number of different degrees that we, in our present state, are hardly concerned with. It is said of gods, or devas, that theirs is a state full of delights such as ‘wishing trees’ able to grant any boon at the mere thought, and other picturesque amenities of a similar kind; no pain can enter into this state while it lasts, which makes the moment of change when it strikes at long last all the more painful for the beings in question, as they suddenly wake up to the fact that their state of bliss is not eternal but remains subject to birth and death like every other existential state. As one Mongolian monk said to the writer: ‘The long-lived gods are stupid.’ Lulled into overconfidence by sheer absence of contrast in their present condition, they are wholly unprepared for the fatal moment when it comes, and they may sink as low as hell itself, a truly lamentable fate.
Not all the gods, however, display this lack of intelligence. Many of them play a creditable part in stories of the Buddha. Some, such as Vishnu’s hawklike steed Garuda, are constant attendants on the Buddha’s person, whose canopy they provide; others again, and especially Brahmâ, king of the devas, after the Buddha’s enlightenment persuade him to preach the doctrine lest the world be utterly lost. This overcoming of the Buddha’s ‘reluctance’ at the instance of the gods features in the history of every teaching Buddha and is meant to convey symbolically that the knowledge possessed by an enlightened one is so profound as to be virtually incommunicable to men in their present state of ignorance. The Buddha, however, consents to teach, thus showing that, ignorance notwithstanding, the Light is not unattainable. For this we have to thank the persuasion of the gods.
Titans, or asuras, for their part, though superior to men in virtue of their possession of various powers, are always represented as contentious beings, full of envy for the gods and their felicity and ever plotting to dethrone them. Typically they are beings who through ‘austerities’, intense work carried out in various fields, have been enabled to extend their own natural faculties to the point of threatening heaven itself. Sometimes titanic ambition even wears an altruistic mask, as when Prometheus stole the fire from the gods in order to bestow it on mankind, thus exposing the latter to the consequences of his own act of profanation. It is typical of an asuric or Promethean temperament to promote recklessly the use of abnormal powers from every kind of motive except the essential one, the one that could lead a being to Buddhahood. Lacking this motive, it lacks all; such is the asuric sign in beings.
The two infernal sectors of our symbolism, the land of tantalised ghosts (pretas) and the hells, are places whence joy and comfort are entirely banished. The first-named is a realm wherein reigns the most intense feeling of want, an insatiable hunger and thirst. Pretas are pictured as having huge, inflated bellies and pinpoint mouths, so that enough nourishment can never find its way through the tiny inlet to meet the excessive cravings of the belly, and thus the being remains in a constant state of misery, which only a change of state may eventually relieve, could he but awaken to this possibility. The hells, on the other hand, more or less explain themselves: they are places of sheer expiation, hot or cold according to the nature of the offences committed (or opportunities disregarded) in the course of previous life. In this respect they hardly differ from the conception of hell as found in the Semitic religions except in matters of detail and, more especially, in the absence of any perfunctory attribution of ‘eternity’ such as does not belong anywhere in the Round.
This last is the most important point to grasp. The keynote of samsâra is impermanence, the primary theme to meditate upon for every Buddhist. All that the world’s flow brings into being is unstable. This is true of heavens or hells, happier states as well as more unhappy; the former admit of no complacency, the latter are never entirely without hope. For everything, in the fullness of becoming, when its particular possibilities have spent themselves, must change to something else. This is the universal law of existence in the Round.
Marco Pallis was born of Greek parents in Liverpool in 1895, educated at Harrow and Liverpool University, and served in the British army during the Great War. Later he studied music with Arnold Dolmetsch, and was much influenced by the writings of two great perennialists, Ananda Coomaraswamy and René Guénon, whom he visited in Cairo and two of whose books he translated with his friend Richard Nicholson.
In 1923 Pallis visited southern Tibet on a mountaineering trip. He returned to the area in 1933 and 1936, consumed by an interest in its traditional culture, and stayed in monasteries in Sikkim and Ladakh. He returned for a more extended visit after World War II. After visiting Ceylon and South India, and receiving the darshan of Ramana Maharshi at Tiravunnamalai, he studied under Tibetan lamas near Shigatse and was initiated, with the Tibetan name of Thubden Tendzin, into one of the lineages.
Pallis returned to England in 1950 and with Richard Nicholson and some other musicians formed the English Consort of Viols, a group dedicated to the preservation of early English music. Pallis made several concert tours with this group. On one such tour to the U.S.A. he visited the Abbey of Gethsemani (Kentucky) where he met Thomas Merton, with whom he had already opened a correspondence .
Marco Pallis wrote two books deriving from his experiences in Tibet: Peaks and Lamas (1939) which was reprinted several times and became something of a bestseller, and The Way and the Mountain (1960). They are a unique blend of travelogue, botanical lore, discursive essays on Tibetan civilization, and metaphysical expositions. In the former Pallis allows the reader to become familiar with the landscape,with its inhabitants and with the values which govern their lives without obtruding Western "interpretations" on his subjects. The second of his books, written in the light of a fully matured understanding of the Vajyarana, includes several peerless essays on such subjects as the "presiding idea" of Tibetan Buddhism, the institution of the Dalai Lama (on which any amount of nonsense had hitherto appeared), and Buddhism in Sikkism.
Pallis's oeuvre is unhampered by any assumptions about the superiority ofthe West; indeed, his books derive much of their insight from his adamantine opposition to the modern spirit and his receptivity to the lessons of tradition in one of its last strongholds. During his trips he enhanced his fluency in the Tibetan language, wore Tibetan clothes and mixed freely not only with learned lamas and geshes but with ordinary folk. He achieved momentary public attention for his role in the exposure of Lobsang Rampa. Pallis wrote many articles for the journal Studies in Comparative Religion, some of which are included in his last publication, A Buddhist Spectrum (1980). Marco Pallis died in 1990. Huston Smith wrote of his work,"For insight, and the beauty insight requires if it is to be effective, I find no writer on Buddhism surpassing him" .
His article, "Do Clothes Make the Man," can be found in, Every Branch in Me: Essays on the Meaning of Man.